How Should You Discipline a Kid in Trouble at School?

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

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It’s been kind of a tense week at my house. One of my sons got sent home from school one afternoon, suspended for the rest of the day, after getting caught doing some mischief with his friends. He belongs to a rowdy friend group, and their teachers are becoming wary of them. It’s hard to resist the urge, when telling the story of your kid getting in trouble, to immediately begin making noises in their defense. It feels like a physiological response, like how parents can supposedly lift the weight of a car if it means saving their kid. But I’ll keep my qualifications and excuses to my group texts. The point is, he got in trouble and we, his parents, needed to apply consequences. (He gave his permission for this column, on the condition that I leave out any specifics.)

We don’t have much experience with consequences. It’s not because we oppose punishment on principle, it’s because we’ve been very lucky: Our kids have cooperated with us most of the time. Usually, an exasperated “PLEASE stop doing that” will have at least some effect.

On top of this, I have very little experience with the principal’s office. The last time I was there was fifth grade, when I got in trouble for calling a kid on the school bus a “hippie cocksucker.” I had learned that insult mere minutes earlier, when, on the drive to the bus stop, we had encountered a car that someone had gotten stuck in the mud the night before and abandoned, blocking the road. “Hippie cocksucker,” sneered the parent who was on carpool duty that day, cursing the absentee driver. I guess I liked how it sounded. But after that notable aberration, my behavioral record remained spotless for the rest of school.

So I was out of my depth. My husband, for his part, was on grimly familiar ground: He was “not invited back” to his junior high, and was expelled from high school weeks before graduating. Every college he’d been accepted to rescinded their offers of admission. It’s safe to say that getting in trouble in high school changed the course of his life. (That being said, he’s a professor now.)

We were summoned for a meeting with the vice-principal before school, the day following my son’s suspension. In the car on our way there, it felt vaguely like all three of us were in trouble. My husband and I had already talked over our strategy, and we agreed that we didn’t want to put our good relationship with our son into any kind of jeopardy. But at the same time, we didn’t want to be doormats. We knew we’d be keeping him home all weekend — no friends, no plans. But we also didn’t want to feel like prison wardens. What’s a nonauthoritarian parent to do when it comes time to exert their authority?

Inside the vice-principal’s office, it felt like an ’80s high-school movie, and I wonder if this is the universal aesthetic condition of all public-school administrative offices. As I’ve written before, it can be hard to feel like a real adult at the best of times, but at times like these? I felt only marginally more adult than my young teenager. There seemed to be a void at the center of our conversation, around which our conversation circled. And that negative space, to me, felt like it was where other parents would have instilled a fear of authority in their child. We had not.

While getting the rundown of our son’s misdeeds, my husband spoke up on his behalf at one point, wondering if other kids shared his culpability. I bristled a little bit — we were here to do penance, not to defend ourselves! But later, my son thanked him. I realized it was a bit of a gambit to remind our son who’s side we’re on.

On the way home, I waffled between wanting to remonstrate and wanting to reassure. I couldn’t figure out exactly where I stood, which is not a familiar feeling to me. I admire parents who are wise dispensers of discipline, but I’m not fully confident in my ability to exercise that kind of authority without seeming arbitrary and unfair. It’s too easy for me to see myself through my son’s eyes. This might be one of those situations where the less you think about it, the better off you are, which is a path I will unfortunately never take. It was exhausting, actually. I felt a powerful need to lie down and close my eyes.

That night, all of us at home, we decided to mark the occasion by watching The Breakfast Club, the definitive school-detention masterpiece. I hadn’t seen it since I was in high school, and there was a lot I hadn’t noticed the first time — or, more likely, just took for granted at the time. (For the uninitiated, the film takes place over a daylong Saturday detention — Do those exist anymore? I don’t think so — during which five kids from different cliques learn that … drumroll, please … they have more in common than they’d thought. It’s awesome and I highly recommend it, even if parts of it haven’t aged very well.)

The main thing I didn’t recall is that the common bond that unites the whole group is a justifiable hatred of their parents. Parents in this film are cruel, abusive hypocrites taking out their own personal failings and insecurities on their children. The Breakfast Club kids all agree that they would be better, happier people if they rebelled against their parents. It’s through this rebellion that they all come together and that ultimately the film’s hopeful message emerges.

This message lands a bit awkwardly today. All of the parents I know are focused on building a loving relationship with their kids. This is the imperative that underpins basically all of today’s popular parenting advice, starting in early childhood. Most of the parenting-advice heavy hitters tell us that making our kids feel emotionally safe is as important as their physical safety. I think I speak for many of the parents I know when I say that it would be a major indictment of my character if my kids hated me. But then again, what if my kid was wrong about me?

I guess you’ve truly entered your narc era when you start asking for justice for the Breakfast Club parents, but I did find myself wondering what these characters would have cared about if they’d been asked. Presumably making sure their kids grow up to be hardworking, independent adults, which seems fair. But ultimately, we can do better than that. There has got to be a way to raise your kids with structure and respect for authority while maintaining their trust.

We had kind of a nice weekend while my son was grounded. It was good to all be home, with less going on. I think one of my mistakes leading up to my son’s suspension was loosening my grip on my parental role a little bit these past few months. I am proud of my son’s growing independence, and I have been feeling that more time to myself is a reward I get now that my kids don’t need me for everything. But — and it pains me very much to say this — I’m learning that early teenagerhood is not the time to take your hands off the wheel. They don’t need less parenting as they get older. Maybe they even need more.

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How Should You Discipline a Kid in Trouble at School?